grand canyon of the ozarks

A writer who frequently visits our shop brought a book to the front counter and sat it down before me. “I have a story for you,” he said. “I want to tell you about this book.” He began leafing through the pages. “When I was about fourteen or fifteen, my mom had a set of these books, with photos from different parts of the US. The Grand Canyon, The Ozarks, Wild Alaska, The Northeast Coast… there were probably fifteen or twenty different books. One summer afternoon, when I was bored, I laid down on the couch and started leafing through some of them. Mostly, I just looked at the photos. But as I was going through this book – The Bayous, by Peter Feibleman, I came to a chapter called ‘Hurricane in the Atchafalaya.’ And since I was bored, I started reading it. It was about these two teenagers who decide to go fishing in the swamp in Louisiana. They knew that there was a hurricane forming in the Gulf, but it wasn’t supposed to make landfall nearby. At about 4am, they get up and start getting ready to take the boat out. Another fisherman sees them, and tells them: the hurricane has changed course. There’s no evacuation order, but still… you need to be cautious, right? But they’re teenagers, and they figure: well, even if it heads this way, we’ll have plenty of time to get out of its path. So they head out into the swamp, and right away, they start to realize that things aren’t quite right. Something just feels a little strange, and the birds sound different. Before long, it starts raining. Hard. Very hard. They start heading back to the dock, but now it’s raining so hard that they have to bail water out of boat as they go. But they make it back OK, and as they’re putting the boat back on the trailer, an old fisherman tells them: You better get out of here. You better get out of here, fast. Well, they still think it’s no big deal. Hurricanes don’t travel that fast, and they figure they can just stay ahead of it. One of them says, hey, my uncle has a place about fifty miles inland. Big, strong house. We’ll go stay with him. Watch the storm from there, ride it out. It’ll be fun. A life experience, you know? So they start driving toward the uncle’s house, which is way out in middle of nowhere, along the bayou. After maybe twenty, thirty minutes, the rain stops, and they figure they’ll be fine. But it’s another hour along old dirt roads before they reach the uncle’s house, and when they get there, the place is empty. All locked up. The uncle’s already evacuated. But they realize at this point, they don’t know where else to go. They manage to get into the house through an open attic window, and they decide they might as well stay. But they start looking around, and they realize: That uncle left in a hurry. A big, big hurry. Like he knew what was coming, and it wasn’t going to be safe to stay. But these two boys… they’ve no longer got any choice. The sky is turning yellow, the birds have gone silent, and they know: The hurricane is coming. They’re trying as best they can to prepare, and they’re looking out at the swamp, and then the sky begins to darken. The wind began to build, and the rain began to fall and the water in the swamp began to rise…”

At this point, the writer paused. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “When I think about that day… that summer day, forty years ago, when I was laying on the couch, reading a story about two teenagers in an empty house, with a hurricane bearing down on them… in my memory, the skies outside my house were growing darker by the minute. Dark clouds were forming and the curtains by the open windows were beginning to billow, and you could smell the coming rain…”

He paused again, and shook his head. “But I don’t really know. Did it really begin to storm, while I was reading the story? I have no idea,” he said, “I was entranced. That story made the storm was real, and it put me there, right there in the path of the hurricane.”

I understood what he meant: that a well-told story transports us, and changes the way we see our surroundings. “What happened to the two boys?” I asked.

He tapped the cover of the book. “You’ll have to read the story,” he said, and he walked out.